As 2002 drew to a close, I travelled to Beijing again to make the final arrangements for the release of Ngawang Sangdrol. It had been a busy year. Dui Hua had announced the release of two other Tibetan political prisoners earlier that year, Jigme Sangpo and ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel.

On March 3, I was featured in a cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and in April 11, I delivered testimony to the Congressional Executive Commission on China — “An Arsenal of Human Rights.”

I had travelled to China a number of times that year, including in June to Beijing and Lhasa where I visited Jigme Sangpo, in the home of his niece, at the tail end of my efforts to secure his release and safe passage to the United States. In September, I had visited Beijing shortly after the release of American businessman David Chow from a prison in Harbin after serving eight years of a 15-year sentence. I had worked hard on Chow’s case for several years. His release, together with that of Ngawang Sangdrol on October 17, were intended to lay the groundwork for Jiang Zemin’s state visit to the United States in late October 2002.

On October 9, 2002, I met with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice the day after I arrived in Beijing. Joint meetings with different ministries are rare, then as now. In addition to discussing Ngawang Sangdrol’s imminent release, I asked that I be allowed to visit a prison before the end of the year. I was told that my request would be considered, and that I should return to Beijing later that month to get an answer.

I returned to Beijing on October 26. I was told that I would be allowed to visit Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province, one of China’s largest prisons, in two weeks. I would be accompanied by Mr. Zhang Yi, a ranking official of the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs.

I flew back to Hong Kong to research the prison and to speak to NGOs to ascertain if there were political prisoners incarcerated there. It turned out that Chen Meng, a Shenzhen-based musician, was serving a 12-year sentence in Dongguan Prison for trafficking in state secrets. In November 1994, Chen had faxed to two Hong Kong human rights groups a “blacklist” of political activists barred from leaving or entering China. He had obtained the list from his brother-in-law who worked for the border control police. Chen’s identity was quickly uncovered. Chen, his sister, and his brother-in-law all went to prison. In Chen Meng’s case, that meant entering Dongguan Prison.

On November 10, 2002, I boarded the direct train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, arriving in Guangdong’s capital city in the late morning. I was met by local officials, with whom I had lunch. After lunch, I was driven to the White Swan Hotel, considered one of the best hotels in the city. (It is situated on Shamian Island, site of the pre-1949 foreign concessions.) Zhang Yi had already arrived. I called his room and we settled on the next day’s program. Afterwards I called John Norris, the American Consul General in Guangzhou.

The next day, November 11, Zhang Yi and I left the hotel after breakfast for the 90-minute drive on the expressway to the prison. Dongguan Prison is situated in Gaobu Township on the outskirts of Shijie village in Dongguan Municipality. We arrived at the prison shortly before 10 AM.

By the time I visited Dongguan Prison, I had already toured six prisons in China, in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Guangdong. I knew the routine. Upon arrival, I would be met by a phalanx of officers in full uniform, after which the warden would take me to his conference room where he would deliver a “brief introduction” to the prison. From there, depending on the prison’s layout, one would tour the hospital, kitchen, exhibition space for products made by prisoners, and a cellblock (but almost never solitary confinement cells). Sometimes you could witness prison labor, and, even rarer, one might see performances laid on by prisoners for visitors.

Afterwards everyone would go to a local restaurant where much eating and drinking took place. Those occasions proved to be a good opportunity for effective advocacy, so I reluctantly joined in.

A Brief Introduction

Upon arrival at the prison, Zhang Yi and I were greeted by the warden, Mr. Li Jianping. He introduced us to two senior members of the provincial prison administration bureau, as well as his deputy wardens. Mr. Li, who was to be my guide during the two-hour tour, escorted us to his office, where the group sat down at a mahogany table in his conference room.

Dongguan Prison, Warden Li explained, was established in 1988. In November 1998, it was designated a “ministry level” model prison, a status which enabled it to host high-level central and provincial government officials. At the time of my visit, it housed 5,200 inmates in 15 cell blocks. It held the largest population of Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan residents and foreigners in China – 700 inmates from 20 territories and countries. Each block had 30 cells (six cells on each of the five floors) measuring 30 square meters each. The cells housed 10-12 inmates each. The prison was overcrowded, well above design capacity.

Foreign prisoners in Dongguan Prison, Guangdong.
Image Credit: WenXueCity.Com

Most individuals convicted by courts in Shenzhen and Dongguan Municipalities served their sentences in Dongguan Prison. Those whose household registrations were in those two municipalities but who were convicted by Beijing courts served their sentences in Dongguan Prison. Most foreigners and Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan residents convicted by Guangdong courts were housed there.

Warden Li explained the management system of the prison. There were four types of prisoners and four types of punishment. The four types of prisoners were those who were serving sentences for violent crimes, smuggling, other economic crimes, and sexual crimes. Well-behaved prisoners would be treated leniently, “ordinary” prisoners would be treated according to standard policies, prisoners whose behavior was sub-standard would be placed under observation (one-third of Hong Kong prisoners were under observation at the time of my visit), and prisoners who violated prison regulations, including violent and dangerous prisoners, would be “strictly managed.” They could be subjected to solitary confinement.

The warden extolled the results achieved by the prison’s management system: 35 percent of all prisoners receive a sentence reduction or parole every year, there was a low recidivism rate of 3.2 percent, and there had been no prison escapes. Because of the high level of care available in the prison’s “Grade A” hospital, medical parole was rarely granted, I was told.

All prisoners were required to do manual labor, except those who were old, weak, or sick, who were placed in their own cell block (prisoners over the age of 55 were considered elderly). The prison made toys and plastic flowers. Since November 1991, none of their products had been exported. (In 1992, the United States and China signed a memorandum of understanding prohibiting trade in products made with prison labor.)

A Performance

When the briefing was over, our party went to the prison courtyard to watch a program of performances by prisoners, passing along the way the Grade A Prison Hospital. There were many pieces of advanced medical devices in evidence, though not in use.

Anticipating the performance, I sat in the front row, next to Warden Li. We were serenaded by an 18-piece band under an energetic conductor. I was told that this man, dressed in standard prison garb save for a red coat and a jaunty navy cap, was a Hong Kong person serving a life sentence. Throughout the band’s performance, the conductor would turn his head and flash a toothy smile.

One performance in particular stood out. A prisoner from Ghana serving a sentence of death with two-year reprieve performed a skit in which he, dressed as a peasant woman with a rag doll strapped to his back, leapt about the stage singing a plaintive Mandarin song. It bore a striking resemblance to an Al Jolson routine. He looked at me with vacant eyes.

The warden jabbed me with his elbow. “Pretty good, eh?” he said under his breath. “I think we’ll keep him.” I was outraged. The warden was seeking my opinion as to whether this man’s life should be spared based on an offensive performance with strong racist overtones.

As we left the courtyard and headed for one of the cell blocks, I admonished Warden Li. He responded, in a matter-of-fact way, “Don’t worry about it. No one serving a death with two-year reprieve at my prison has ever been executed. In 2002, 100 prisoners serving sentences of death with two-year reprieve had their sentences commuted, including eight Hong Kong people.”

I replied: “Let me give you a piece of advice. If ever you host a delegation of African-Americans don’t lay on that performance. You will regret doing so. They will not be as polite as me.

Cell Block Nine

As we approached Cell Block Nine, Warden Li informed me that this block was used to house Hong Kong and Macau prisoners. There were more than 300 such prisoners spread across five floors of cells. The rest of the Hong Kong-Macau prisoner population – totaling around 400 inmates – was placed among the general population, or were in the prison hospital. Most of the Hong Kong-Macau prisoners were serving sentences for drug trafficking and smuggling of common goods. A few of them were serving sentences for espionage. On the wall of the cell block were lists of prisoners whose behavior was “exemplary, normal, and sub-standard.”

The prisoners could receive monthly visits from members of their families living in the two special administrative regions, Taiwan, and overseas. Although representatives of civil society had visited, no Hong Kong official had ever visited a Hong Kong person in Dongguan Prison.

Dongguan Prison in Guangdong Province. Image Credit:

Our small party entered the cell block and walked up a flight of stairs to the second floor. The cells were oblong, opening onto a hallway where there were chairs and a television set on which inmates could watch the seven o’clock news. There was a telephone where prisoners could receive calls from relatives. Each cell had a small balcony. I noticed the smell of cigarette smoke. Contrary to practice in every other prison I have visited in the world, prisoners were apparently permitted to smoke. Each cell had six bunk beds. Space was at a premium.

We left the cell block and headed for the product exhibition hall. Before we got there, I asked about Chen Meng. The warden recognized his name. Chen, he said, was in the general population, when he wasn’t in a hospital bed. His medical expenses were borne by the hospital, and he was exempt from physical labor. Family members paid regular visits. He had not received any sentence reductions, and was not being considered for medical parole. (Chen Meng served his entire sentence. He was released on March 13, 2007).

The exhibition of arts and crafts products contained a wide variety of items, ranging from models made with wooden sticks, to plastic flower displays, to paintings. I was asked to sign the visitor’s comments book, and given a Chinese calligraphy brush to do so. I found the brush unwieldy, so I jotted down a few phrases: “Nice work! Congratulations!” and signed the book using my Chinese name, Kang Yuan.

Years later, an assessment of Dongguan Prison attributed to me appeared in a local Chinese newspaper, much to the amusement of friends. “Even John Kamm, head of the American Human Rights Dialogue Foundation, who has consistently been a critic of China’s prisons, sighed with emotion.” The article went “Your work inspires confidence. I am a fairly serious person who rarely writes inscriptions when visiting prisons, but I was happy with everything I saw today, for which I express my thanks.”

After the visit to the exhibition hall, we left the prison for lunch at a local seafood restaurant. We dined on rice sparrows, a delicacy during cold weather, washed down by beer and maotai. After lunch, I was driven to the train station, where I boarded the express train to Hong Kong, arriving at my hotel in the early evening.

Xu Zerong

I didn’t know it at the time of my visit, but Xu Zerong began serving his sentence for endangering state security in Dongguan Prison in the first half of 2002.

Xu was a respected scholar and historian who resided in Hong Kong but who, because of his distinguished family background (his father and mother were senior officials in the People’s Liberation Army and Zhongshan University, respectively), traveled to Guangzhou frequently. Xu, aka David Tsui, earned his PhD from Oxford University in 1999, after which he returned to China where he assumed positions at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences and Zhongshan University. Xu’s area of specialization was China’s role in the Korean War. He also studied and wrote articles on China’s support for communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia, a sensitive topic.

Xu was detained on June 24, 2000, accused of having photocopied and sent out of China excerpts from books on China’s military strategy during the Korean War, which had ended in 1953. Although marked internal (nei bu), Xu believed the books had been declassified. He was also accused of running an illegal publishing business. He was placed in the Guangzhou State Security Bureau Detention Center, and formally arrested on July 29, 2000. He was tried on August 7, 2001 by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court and sentenced to 13 years in prison and three years subsequent deprivation of political rights on December 12, 2001. His appeal was rejected and he was moved from the detention center to Dongguan Prison sometime in the first half of 2002.

Not long after he was detained, Xu’s friends at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States asked me to help. I began making inquiries. I was finally told that he was serving his sentence in Dongguan Prison.

Since I had already established a good relationship with Warden Li Jianping, I decided to try a novel approach to helping Xu Zerong. I would write letters to the warden asking him to look after Xu Zerong. On March 14, 2003, I mailed a letter to Warden Li from Hong Kong.

The first thing I did in the letter was to establish a personal connection to Xu. The two of us had worked together on Professor Ezra Vogel’s One Step Ahead in China. I had contributed a chapter while David had helped with translation for the Chinese edition. Vogel’s work on Guangdong over many years had resulted in his having many friends in the provincial government. The professor gave me permission to use his name in making appeals on Xu’s behalf.

In my letter, I pointed out that Xu had a number of medical conditions, and asked that he be placed in the prison hospital. “Because Dr. Xu is a scholar, it would help if he could receive books and scholarly journals,” I wrote. “You might also consider exempting him from physical labor and employing him, if he is not too ill, as a librarian or teacher.”

To my surprise, Warden Li replied on April 15, 2003 to my letter. The letter was written in English. He confirmed that Xu Zerong had been taken into custody at Dongguan Prison. Li said that the prison would look after his health and “dispose him to rational labor work required by rehabilitation.”

I wrote a second letter to Warden Li on May 28, 2003. By then, the SARS epidemic was raging in China. I offered to donate to the prison’s medical fund to help combat SARS. I again recommended that Xu be placed in the medical ward and be employed teaching English to his fellow inmates. “I think being able to receive letters and reading material . . . would help his morale and assist his rehabilitative progress,” I wrote.

Warden Li replied on June 11, 2003. He thanked me for my concern over SARS, and said not a single case had been diagnosed in the prison. As for Xu Zerong, “he is now emotionally stable and physically healthy (and) makes use of his advantage of English language helping the other inmates with the English classes.”

Teaching English to prisoners constitutes meritorious service, and qualifies the prisoner doing the teaching to receive points that can be used to obtain sentence reductions.

In his June 11 letter, Warden Li confirmed that Xu had the right to receive a small quantity of commodities including books, but pointed out that the books would be examined by prison administrators before they reach prisoners “to safeguard the security of the prison.”

I immediately set about trying to mail books to Xu in Dongguan Prison. I quickly discovered, from friends with ties to the provincial prison bureau, that books in English would have to be translated into Chinese! (One of the books I sent to Xu was the English-language translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) I subsequently discovered that books published in Hong Kong and sent from the Special Administrative Region attracted extra scrutiny. Finally, on a trip to Shanghai, I purchased books and sent them via domestic mail to Dongguan. Those books made it to Xu Zerong.

I sent my third letter to Warden Li on July 25, 2003, but I never got an answer. Xu Zerong was transferred in November 2003 to Xicun Prison, also known as Guangzhou Prison. Xicun Prison is considered the best prison in Guangdong, and Xu was treated well there.

Xu received a nine-month sentence reduction in 2006. This was followed by a 10-month sentence reduction in 2008 and a five-month sentence reduction in 2011. He was released two years early on June 23, 2011. Despite having a supplemental sentence of three years deprivation of political rights, Xu was allowed to return to Hong Kong.

Not long after he arrived in Hong Kong, Xu gave an interview to Open Magazine. In the interview, published on August 6, 2011, Xu credits my efforts on his behalf – visiting the prison in the company of an official from the Ministry of Justice, mailing him books, frequently submitting lists with his name on them – for his better treatment and early release. My visit was covered in the prison newspaper. Xu claimed that with my attention, “prison conditions improved, and all prisoners benefited.”

A few years after Xu’s release, I was told by one of my interlocutors in the Guangdong government that Warden Li Jianping had been criticized for engaging in the exchange of letters with me. He was transferred to another prison, but otherwise was not punished.